There's a way to kick-start migration safely and reap the benefits

The heartbreaking COVID situation that continues to unfold in India has Australians watching in great sadness. Images of funeral pyres burning on the streets of Delhi and dying people desperate for help are awful. Never has there been a more stark comparison been drawn on why Australia is the best place in the world to live, especially during a pandemic.

While Australia has provided aid to India in the form of oxygen tanks, ventilators and masks, we have an opportunity to go one step further and provide a safe place to study for Indian and other nationality students. In doing so, we open a small drawbridge to Fortress Australia.

“Fortress Australia”, based on our geographic isolation from the rest of the world and hard international (and at times domestic) border closures, has delivered the amazing outcome of limiting the transmission of COVID. Even in the shadow of the current outbreak in Melbourne, Australians’ must be thankful that we are not facing a calamity like India or Papua New Guinea.

But challenges remain including the need to reboot our education sector, which is languishing from the withdrawal of international students from the country at the start of the COVID outbreak last year, and the subsequent closure of our borders.

We also need to deliver a reliable alternative to the vexed hotel quarantine system, which led to Victoria’s fourth lockdown, and with it a pathway for the quicker repatriation of Aussies stranded overseas and an orderly resumption of our migrant intake.

Property is one of the biggest engines of our economic growth, anchoring our economy with $235b of annual activity. Immigration has been one of the stalwarts fuelling that engine, along with its irreplaceable contribution to our rich and deep cultural diversity.

For economic reasons an increase to net overseas inbound migrations should be a national goal and it could and should start with the return of international students. They could be a litmus test we could use to demonstrate Australia is safe and open for business.

The Purpose-Built Student Accommodation Industry Working Group, representing some of Australia’s biggest providers of student accomodation, has joined with education sector participants to develop practical solutions to COVID 19’s devastating impact on the flow of international students. This saw student arrivals plummet by 600,000 compared with 2019.

This collaboration has developed a student migration plan that is set to provide accommodation and pastoral support for more than 114,000 international students across Australia. Government is aware the plan is available.

The plan provides a secure end-to-end COVID assessment and isolation process covering departure, travel, arrival and accommodation. It involves pre-departure COVID testing, transportation of the students in groups, heavy use of security and health professionals, oversight of quarantining arrangements by government, COVID testing of accommodation staff daily and the testing of students at appropriate intervals.

The attraction of the plan is its commitment to a quarantine system for the students that, according to the experts – Aspen Medical and International SOS, meets hig h standards and eliminates many of the risks we have seen with hotel quarantine. While hotel quarantine sees air evacuate from a room potentially sparking a COVID spreader event, this quarantine solution – which meets stringent Federal Government health guidelines – is engineered so there is no leakage of airflow from the room to corridor. This is the new gold standard that addresses safe COVID quarantine.

The PBSA industry can provide accommodation and pastoral support for more than 114,000 international students across Australia – its commitment evidenced with 31,000 purpose-built beds built across the country over the last five years is worth an estimated $10 billion. On top of this PBSA developments under construction and in planning could also furnish the needs of a further 30,000 students over the next three to five years.

Businesses across NSW have jobs that are going begging because they can’t fill them with Australian job seekers. Jobs as cleaners in offices, in hospitality for cafes and restaurants in our cities like Parramatta or Armidale and as farm workers in Deniliquin and other vital country centres. Even though Luna Park is just for fun it too is having trouble filling the breach.

International students want to study and work here. In 2019, 42,380 student visa applications were received from India alone. They want to work – and they will comply with our strict quarantine requirements – because they too want to live in the lucky country that is Australia. They earn money and pay taxes just like us. And they spend money and in doing so generate jobs for Aussies.

Gladys Berejiklian’s government has shown outstanding leadership during the COVID crisis. A decision to provide a parachute for these students into our nation, which has done better than most, means we give these students the best gifts of all – education and hope.

If NSW and indeed Australia is to adapt to the new normal – a world living with the virus in its presence for the foreseeable future – then we must work to reduce the risks associated with the critical social engagement and development that forms an essential part of human DNA.

This starts with the return of international students in safe way leading to the relaunch of our immigration program. The return of international students is the key to safely unlock Fortress Australia.